Capturing User Innovation

Building a new product is always fun. You draft ideas, generate wireframes, mockups, prototypes, you build your app, you tweak it, you release it. In the case of software and web applications you also get to update it and make it better. If it’s hardware, you work on a 2nd revision to be sold a year later to people who didn’t adopt early (jab at early adopters).

One of the most interesting things is how users actually use the product you make, if they use it at all. Do they use it a little or a lot? Do they use it as intended? Do they find things missing? To robust for their taste? Or do they just find uses and modifications that all the engineers involved never in a million years would have contemplated?

Historical User Innovation

User innovation isn’t a new thing. Our brains were designed to tinker and reinvent. The wheel is nothing more than a plane where all points are an equal distance from a given point (centre). Fire is the oxidation of a combustible material releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Both are natural logical things that mankind has come up with many clever “hacks” (todays term) for. We’ve even combined this seemingly unrelated geometric wonder and potentially dangerous reaction to come up with the combustion engine powered motor coach (car).

The Flier I, the first plane the Wright Brothers famously flew in 1903 used a chain drive to power the propellers from the single centrally mounted motor. The chain drive is bicycle technology the wright brothers knew well from bike repair and sale business.

Apollo 13 is the story of finding unintended uses for technology and to bring 3 astronauts home safely. First they used the Lunar Module (LEM) as a makeshift “lifeboat”. If that wasn’t clever enough they utilized plastic bags, cardboard, tape, and a hose from a space suit to rig some air filters from the command module to fit the LEM (you can find an amazing picture of that here).

These are just a few more notable examples but you could find millions more, from the old “soldiers tricks” you’ve heard time and time again like soldiers in the past using condoms to keep water and debris out of their gun among others.

Historic Computing User Innovation

Computing has long been about user innovation. The most obvious and the least recognized is computer games. Long before computers were ever intended to be used for recreational purposes people were figuring out how to do it. While it seems silly it eventually turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. Not bad for a nerdy trick on a cathode ray tube.

Then you had the geniuses at the Homebrew Computer Club and and the Altair 8800 which helped usher in a new era of computers that people could manipulate to do whatever they wanted. They were hackers, and they remembered that when they starting building computers for consumers. Their machines were customizable with software that could be developed easily (at least relatively speaking). Leading to the modern era of user innovation…

Modern Computing User Innovation

There are many examples of user innovation, but I’ll give just a few to make a point:

Some systems facilitate user innovation for example through extensions and plugins. Just take a look at Firefox and it’s robust addons collection. On occasion features have even become bundled into the browser, for example tab reordering. Other features first get prototyped as extensions (the reporter tool being a perfect example). Users are invited to develop their own features and innovations and share them with others. Clever, but somewhat technical. Removing the technical barrier is being done as part of Jetpack.

Another more subtle example is how people search often then they tend to browse. As many people with a domain name know, a noteworthy portion of traffic will come from people who just Google your domain name rather than enter it in the URL bar. It seems in at least some minds search and navigation have merged much more than in others minds. I’ll touch more on this in an upcoming blog post. For yet another example, leaving tabs open with stuff you want to read later. I’ve even seen (and done myself) the practice of blank tabs as separators between different things I’m working on in 1 window. There are extensions out there to help colorize to help organize as well.

One of my favorite stories is the Twitter hash tag. Hash tags aren’t something that the Twitter developers created or even intended for. They are something users just decided to do, and standardize on. It’s democracy through chaos at it’s best. Despite Twitter’s user generated data stream being compared to a fire hose somehow people caught on and agreed on this standard. Even cooler is how hash tags can spontaneously be created with seemingly little or no coordination. Users solved one of Twitters largest problems (organizing data) completely on their own without any engineering effort.

Even hardware is becoming more open to being modified and manipulated by users. Take for example the Arduino (something I totally need to get and play with).

A standard Web 2.0 feature has been to provide an API and tons of feeds to allow developers to mashup and find new uses for your service. Some have become insanely popular and helped websites, and others have fizzled at best.

There are many more examples of users innovating, but I will stop here. Sites like Hack a Day and Lifehacker do a good job documenting some of these.

How To Capture User Innovation

The big question is how do you capture this innovation and bake it into the product? Some lucky products like Twitter seem to take a life of their own and organically evolve. Others, notably non-web services like Firefox seem to take a bit more nurturing to find the diamonds, shine them up and bake them into the next version. Others still can’t even manage that.

There seems to be two basic paths that an organization can take:

Build the platform and let users take control – This is the Twitter method. Works best for situations where technical knowledge required to shape the product is minimal.
Build the platform and make it accessible for the technically inclined and willing – This is the API and feed route. Let developers build cool things, and hope they will improve your offering in return.

Are there others?

I think open source projects generally have an advantage do to their inherent open nature. They fully intend for users to have control. Those focused on content tend to have an advantage over those that focus on service.

It’s an interesting topic. How can you take this organic user innovation and utilize it to either fix the underlying flaws to make a better product or bundle the innovation to enhance the experience for all users? Just ask? Usability studies? More API’s? Bribery?

User Innovation may be the best there is. No engineer knows exactly how their product will be used and all the real life test cases. Users however are the test case.

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